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To give away the farm or not to give away the farm?

Collection of your thoughts on the efficacy of giving away SEO information.



9:09 pm on Nov 13, 2002 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

*Not exactly sure where this needs to go so if it's out of place, mods, could you please put in the appropriate catagory.*

I do SEO work for a growing design firm on a subcontractor basis. I am the only SEO they work with. Recently, I decided to write an article about the basics of Website Marketing covering online and offline methods of getting a site seen. In this article, I cover the basics of SEO, an area which the company I am working with is trying to develop into a "core competency". In a moment of pride, I showed my article to one of the business owners, who happens to be a freind of some years. Upon seeing the article, she was excited and veiwed the article as a potential marketing tool for her to use in the selling of the service. I offered to allow them to use it or a modified version of it as on their site or in their marketing materials, free of charge. She forwarded it to the main man in the business who is very knowledgable in the ways of business and is a professor at a major grad school. His classes are business related. So I am inclined to trust the man's opinions generally. However on this issue that I will be illustrating shortly, I think I disagree with his position.

The article was written for my business' SEO site, I am currently trying to take on a new client or two on a subcontrator basis, and I had hoped I could bulk up my site with a series helpful articles directed towards other web professionals in an effort to increase search engine rankings, to help demonstrate the importance of this procedure, and to garner credibility and be seen as a trusted and respected member of the Web professional community.

He was rather taken aback for a couple of reasons, #1 being the potential of me competing directly with his company on what he considers a core competency of his company. (A core competency that I am the only one competent in.) That one came out of left feild as we are targeting two different demographics and raises a few issues on the boundries of our professional relationship, as it is in my best interest to right by my company as well as his. But what should come first? That's a tuff won that I'm affraid you guys won't be able to help much with.

The second issue is at the crux of our debate. My position is as stated above, adding credibility, providing useful content, promoting an understanding of what we do, increasing SE rankings and adding stickyness to my site.

His take is that the only power we have in this business is the knowledge that we possess, and the power of our brand. He explained that by posting this on the web, we are empowering our competetors, as well as our potential clients who can, once understanding our system, do an apples to apples comparison and begin shopping solely on price, an market that we simply cannot compete in thereby eliminating the strength of our brand.

I counter with the fact that I'm not giving it all up in the article, just sort of the building blocks of how to set a foundation for a successful website marketing campaign. And that this information is all easily accessable anyway.

He still feels that it is giving away the farm.

What is your take on it, should we be freely giving away, info that can empower our competitors? Is there any real danger here given the huge amounts of information about the topic on the web? As subcontractors, how much should we limit our exposure and opportunity for a single company that we contract for?

This is my main source of income at moment, so I am personally inclined to do as he suggests, but I'm questioning myself as to whether that is the proper and most fruitful course of action.

Thank in advance for your responses.


9:22 pm on Nov 13, 2002 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

Personally, I would never allow someone, group or company to control what I write outside of the company, with the exclusion being the obvious one of the company (or companies) that I work for. By working for a company I implicitly agree to follow their rules, and of course it would be unethical in the extreme to write negatively (and in some cases even positively) about my employer.

Information which the company considered trade secrets should not, of course, be published without permission.

If I worked for a potato company, I believe it would be reasonable to ask for their blessing before writing articles about potato farming, and to follow their wishes in regards to the material. Anything else that I write is none of their business, unless it wandered into an area of extreme unethicalness. (for example, if you worked for the potato company and ran a p*n website (a very highly unethical activity) they would be well within their rights to demand that you stop or leave their employment).

Richard Lowe


9:42 pm on Nov 13, 2002 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

The thing is, that I am the one developing their SEO program, I am doing this as a subcontractor, thier idea of seo, was a few overture listings and and doorway pages, until I arrived, they were building minimally textual frames pages, and were not even indexed by google. If I were an employee, I would say, yes as long as I am in your employment, I need to do as they ask, but the onnly benefit of subcontracting is the ability to remain flexible and continue to run MY business as I see fit. By esentially agreeing to non compete, I am limiting my business to one company. I'm not sure I want to do that. He claims our potential is in the strength of our brand....

Bottom line is, I'm not giving away any secret info, nothing that can't be found in the most basic search of webmaster world.

this is really an usettling situation and topic that hasn't reared it's ugly head until now and I am quite uncomfortable with the whole scenario.

They have made the statement that once the process is figured out, you could train a monkey to do it. And that by giving away even this simplistic icfo, I am empowering any kid with access to a library computer to be able to set up a business that competes directly with his. Essentially what he is saying is that any info I give to webmaster world would also diminish the strength of thier companies brand,

Dang it, I never signed a non compete agreement, that would have me fliping burgers at the local McDonalds at the first slow month.

sorry if my frustration is begining to seep through.


9:49 pm on Nov 13, 2002 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

If you didn't agree to non-compete (and that generally requires a contract) then they don't have anything to stand on about that.

Personally as you've described the situation, I would find work elsewhere as soon as possible or work it with them that they have no rights over my writing (no pun intended). Otherwise, it might develop (if it hasn't already) into a conflict of interest.

Ethics and integrity are more important than any job.

Richard Lowe


9:56 pm on Nov 13, 2002 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

Thanks for your responses, that may end up being what I do, but I would still enjoy hearing responses to the questions not as they relate to my specific situation.


10:16 pm on Nov 13, 2002 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

"They have made the statement that once the process is figured out, you could train a monkey to do it."

They have oversimplified SEO, so much so they feel that any information about what they
are trying to do will give away the farm. SEO is not that simple, or everyone would
be doing it successfully. And, with your experience, it appears you might be
better off elsewhere.

I feel it is important that we share information with one another. This
helps us be better providers of products and services to our clients.
And, this helps everyone in the long run. Similar to software patents, keeping information
or the use of specific information from others just does not seem entirely
ethical to me.


10:19 pm on Nov 13, 2002 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

I have a website where I've written over 1,500 articles about the internet and such. I debated for a long time with myself: charge for it or not? I decided information should be free. It's kind of my way of giving back to the world and community for providing me a place to live, a society and so on.

Richard Lowe


10:27 pm on Nov 13, 2002 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

I would be of the mindset that it would be very beneficial to give away basic information. Many times people will read that info, try to do it themselves, fail, and then come back asking for help. It takes more knowledge than can be explained in a few articles.


10:46 pm on Nov 13, 2002 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member fathom is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member Top Contributors Of The Month

I agree here with richlowe on ethics and ownership of contents, and where possible content should be free: it provides trustworthiness and creditability.

The other side of this, in theory: a monkey can become an exceptional SEOer in time, so bear with me.

Mimic what others do, and more often than not you'll succeed much of the time. However, doing the process and understanding the process are completely different things.

Market reach and new market penetration.

Even in small cummunities there are sufficient businesses to go around. High quality competition (that you can/may control) is extremely good. You really can't (in most cases) create demand without competition, if nobody's doing it (using SEO services) then there is no demand, no demand, limited work and this means a significant lack of opportunity.

So I guess you need to consider a few things:

1. What is the current demand?

3. What is the demand potential? (if this is ten only - keep everything to yourself).

2. What is the maximum number of contracts you can support with professional "quality" services. (I could possibly do 1000/month - but none would likely be clients for 2 if I'm lucky)?

3. What is the potential competitiveness, and who (and how many) if you became saturated can assist?

4. What is the partnership potential with these?

5. The art and science of SEO is not the actual implementation of the strategy but the knowlesge of scope and how the process works, identifying the variables (client specifics), milestones and target performances.

Anyone can code (and mimic others) or use PPC but the professional can initiate the process with reasonable certainty as to outcomes before commencing with any plan.

6. For every single potential client within reach that could competitively learn SEO and do it for themselves, there are least another 10 that cannot afford the time, or lack the initial comprehension.

A persons core business is what get's them through the tough times, and a Jack-of-all-trades is a master at none and will eventually come around.

No pun intended JOAT! ;)


11:36 pm on Nov 13, 2002 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

As a programmer/analyst that has worked as both an employee and as a consultant/contractor, this sounds like a situation where the line between independent contractor and client might be getting blurry -- at least in the eyes of the client.

To me, issues of maintaining my independent status in the eyes of the IRS/gov, rather than being classified as an employee would be of serious concern. There are the IRS "20 rules/factors" on the difference between independent contractors and employees. Thought provoking reading, IMO.

Basically, who owns your work product and expertise? What is the nature of the contractual relationship between them and you? Is it spelled out or just "understood as it evolves over time"...especially as it evolves in their mind as to what degree they own your expertise. And just what is work product and what is expertise/business method; what do they own and what do you own? Sounds like they want to classify your expertise as *their* competitive advantage or property...very dangerous when the day comes you have other clients who will want the same expertise.

If an independent contractor lets the client tell them what they may or may not publish (besides maybe work product they pay for and own that you produced on their time), one might be considered an employee, IMO.

Without debating the merit of the company person's mentality about giving away knowledge, competitive advantage and the training of "monkeys", I would be quite concerned if I were an independent contractor whose expertise were viewed as a "core asset/competency" of my client unless they were paying me to transfer that expertise to someone on staff -- or unless they understood *I* was the owner of my expertise and was an outside independent contractor, not their employee.

Moreover, that I could provide the exact same expertise to anyone else -- including their competitors -- without restriction or damage to them. It would be a nightmare if a client decided my programming expertise was their core asset, and if I were to program for a competitor, I would somehow be taking *their* asset and damaging their standing by providing it to a competitor.

If I write a program that saves them money using my expertise at process reengineering on their dime, I figure they own the use of that code. However, my process reengineering and programming expertise can be applied ta a similar problem of their competitors without somehow violating the IP they have in the specific code I wrote for them -- or can it? Guess it depends on the contractural relationship I did the work for them under, IMO. This can get sticky, and is a very good reason for spelling out what exactly a client is and is not buying work product and expertise wise in an engagement contract before doing any work for them, IMO. I would also include anti- non-compete language, too!

Issues like who owns the intellectual rights to work product and expertise is crucial to avoiding very ugly problems and ill will, IMO.

Just my thoughts and opinions, as I am not a lawyer, nor offering legal advice or opinion in any way.



12:01 am on Nov 14, 2002 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

Since you are the only competency in their "core competency", and you are a subcontractor, it sounds to me like the "not so bright" trying to claim ownership where there truly is none. Here is a good question for you mat_bastian: If you had never mentioned the article in a moment of pride, would anyone at this company ever have even been aware of it? Would it have made any difference at all in your existing arrangement with them, or your ability to produce the work they need and want? It sounds to me like your reasons for writing the article in the first place are well intentioned and also well grounded with a good business logic. I would ignore them, follow my conscience and keep your other business to yourself in the future.


12:12 am on Nov 14, 2002 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

No, It seems the article was the equivelant of a large can of worms and showing it to them opened it up. I would have never had to question thier allegience or had them questioning mine had I just not shown it to them.


12:35 am on Nov 14, 2002 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

When I started working with them, I was very new to SEO and had only a basic understanding of the process. This was communicated up front so that they understood that it would be something of a learning process. So essentialy, the majority of my skills have come since the start of our relationship. However, they have never been billed for one red cent of my research time, and nearly all of the skills I now possess have come from reading at places like webmasterworld and search engine watch, and the like as well as experimenting on my own and my own clients sites. I used to be strictly in design so I have some clients there that I still have good relationships with. I get the impression that they feel that they "taught me" to do SEO... In exchange for the chance, I allowed them to pay me a lower than average wage. Sort of like apprenticing only with payment being recieved only on completed work. The actual research was never compensated. Now that they are getting good results in the SE's and have seen a huge across the board increase in thier sites and thier clients sites traffic, they feel that because they gave me that chance, that I owe them a certain undefined degree of exclusivity or at least the opportunity to funnel the work that I dig up through their company. I can't operate like that as they can not pay me what I need to put food on the table, or so they say. Maybe I should have said this earlier as it may change the dynamic of things a bit.

These are hard lessons to learn, but I think our earlier relationship was far to relaxed and without the structure neccesary to do business.

Looks like I need to talk to my lawer and draft some solid contracts.


3:56 am on Nov 14, 2002 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

I'll share how things often work in the programming world; how it relates to SEO, I'll leave for you to decide.

At the beginning of one's programming career, one is paid a lot less than someone with, say, 3-5 years experience. Companies realize they are paying a lower wage for a lower level of contribution.

There are tight times in the job market like we experienced in the late 1990's where there may not be a large difference between pay for someone with little experience compared to someone with say five years experience, but those are the exception, not the rule. Five years after I started as a programmer, I was making more than double what I started at, for instance. I think that was pretty much the case for most folks who started in 1989 like I did, too.

Of course, one of the reasons the young programmer chooses the company they do (if they have multiple offers), is because of the experience and training they will get at that employer instead of another employer. It's part of the deal up front. To pretend it's not a factor just isn't being honest. The company trades the learning opportunity in part for the lower wage the employer gets the new employee to work for compared to what they would have to pay a more experienced person.

Over time, the new programmer gains on the job experience...well, on the job of all places. However, the expertise gained belongs to the person, not the company.

This is a win-win situation. The company likes getting a low cost programmer and some young person they can mold into doing things their way. The young person gets an income and experience they can parlay into more money.

After a period of time -- say 3-5 years -- the new programmer is now a lot more productive. A lot more. They are also worth a lot more money.

Often, due to the realities of corporate compensation policies, the new employee finds they must change jobs to get what they are worth in the marketplace. Companies just don't find it palatable to give folks 30-50% -- or more --raises. After all, it might start a trend in other departments besides IT -- or just piss some people off and make them jealous -- whatever.

Do companies wail and moan over the lack of loyalty from their 5 year programmer? No. They hire another fresh face right out of school and start the process all over again. In fact, they often will hire the person back after they have worked a few years somewhere else -- at still another higher jump over what the person goes on to make at that somewhere else. It's just business in the value for value world of skilled labor and expertise for money.

Companies that hire folks with little or no experience for lower wages than they would otherwise have to pay realize the deal they are making. Both they and the new employee (or consultant) realizes the on the job training and experience is worth giving up a certian amount of current salary for. Both sides are happy with the arrangement. All well and good. Win-win.

Nothing to beat oneself up over or allow someone to manipulate you into feeling "owned" or guilty over.

Of course, I don't know your situation, but it sounds to me like they want to pretend they "own" the experience you earned while working for a lower level of pay than what they would have had to fork over for someone who already had it the day they walked in the door.

Working as an independent contractor especially, I would be quite careful about letting myself feel my expertise was "owned" by a client. Nor would I allow myself to feel like my client, who kept things at an independent contractor/client level rather than an employee/employer level, was entitled to whatever future business I dug up as an independent contractor. Had I been their employee, it might well be different; but such is not the case here.

Again, I don't know the situation. And this is just my opinion from afar, but their perspective of things doesn't sound like a value for value professional business relationship between an independent contractor and a client firm to me.

It sounds like a con job someone is trying to pull to milk you -- an independent contractor/business person, not their employee -- for all you will allow them to thru primarily a misguided sense of loyalty while paying you as little as they can get you to settle for.

Keeping you away from the competition by claiming to "own" your well earned expertise, and hopefully make you feel too guilty and loyal to "betray" them by also offering it to any competitor of theirs is a nice bonus ploy, too. If you will fall for it.

I don't think any independent contractor can afford to fall for such ploys, though, IMO.

Hope this doesn't sound too cynical or crass. Just my opinion and guess from afar. I could be wrong, but I doubt it.

Best wishes to you,



4:46 am on Nov 14, 2002 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member fathom is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member Top Contributors Of The Month

Interesting thread...

This is my main source of income at moment, so I am personally inclined to do as he suggests, but I'm questioning myself as to whether that is the proper and most fruitful course of action.

As to the second part "...but I'm questioning myself as to whether that is the proper and most fruitful course of action".

You have nailed it. Each consultant must invoke a positive response from potential clients - and this tend to happen only if the client is confident in your abilities.

Using knowledge building "tips" as the source isn't giving anything away. When knowledge is provided outside of the "wisdom" shell or the controlled understanding of a complete envrionment and generalized in context for re-purposing into any industry/market... it only real value is the establish creditability.

If you tell someone that their car requires a tuneup (just by listening to it)... doesn't mean that can person instantly become a mechanic with all the shared insight and experience that you have.

In addition, even though a person with rundamentary skills may be able to do the tuneup, doesn't mean they can reproduce the "skill" of just listening for tune-up time.

If you are indeed a sub-contractor vice employee and you maintain a generalized stance (not geared to industry/market specifics) to knowledge building, I would believe the clients specific IP rights are protected.


12:46 pm on Nov 14, 2002 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

Seo can be learned by simply surfing the web. Houses can be painted simply by buying paint.

People make money doing both these jobs for people who do not have the time or inclination to either learn or do the work themsleves.

Your employer is following the unethical sales route where you keep people in the dark and therefore are able to charge more. Traditional marketing and sales has so many limitations in the context of the internet.

I have moved jobs twice for reasons like this. Both times it has worked out well but it is a risk. I do feel that following the honest path reaps its rewards in the end.


1:01 pm on Nov 14, 2002 (gmt 0)

>A persons core business is what get's them through the tough times, and a Jack-of-all-trades is a master at none and will eventually come around.

No pun intended JOAT!


On the subject of "revealing secrets" in your articles:

You could train a monkey in the basics of marketing (product, place, promotion, price). It doesnt mean that they be any good at it.

SEO / web design are as much creative disciplines as they are technical.

Yes, anyone can learn to do it, but it takes a lot of effort to do it well.

Chances are, if your competition used a couple of articles of base their work on that they would fail. Look at it this way:

"Oh, so keywords are important?"
Then spam spam spam....

"Oh, that didnt work, so inbound links are important?"
Then dup content, interlinking, spam spam spam...

"Oh, that didnt work, so <insert a dodgy SEO tatic>?"

If someone that doesnt know what they are doing starts messin around with SEO based on a couple of articles, then they are likely to fail.

And like everyone has said, the information is available for free anyway.

My 2c! :)

(MON! ;))


3:09 pm on Nov 14, 2002 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member


The problems you are describing appear to be related to personal issues and not business issues. If the company devloped ideas that are not public knowledge then they do have a right to own them.

Many marketing firms have employess who have written books on marketing. This knowkedge is usually common knowledge but the writers put their own personal slant on the subject. It's the use of this knowkedge that is the value for marketing companies.

If the company's only value is in this article you wrote, then they are in trouble. They must feel very threatened in their position or brand if this can derail them to such extent.

I would work on finding a common ground but realize that you will go on to other contracts.

By the way, once published on the Internet the knowledge is in the public domain anyway.


12:25 am on Nov 19, 2002 (gmt 0)

My 2 cents worth being new to the professional area but a web design dabbler for years...

I think SEO is a very interesting area and I only started learning about it when trying to get better rankings for my own site. Using basic principles from this site and others, I improved my own ranking significantly (although I am waiting to see what Google does at the end of this month!). However, there is much to learn and improve on.

While there is still much to learn, even this basic knowledge is a competitive advantage (if you are top 10 from 1.5 million sites for your keywords that is pretty good IMHO).

I have come across an issue professionally - "can you optimise our site and teach our internal webmaster how to do it?". Anyone with basic observational skills can see the changes you make so I think you are better off to charge for the teaching component as well and hope the 'goodwill' results in repeat business with the client.

I am expecting that most of my web design clients won't be too worried about SEO but it is an area where I can make up for my lack of artistic talent! ;)


3:05 am on Nov 19, 2002 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Administrator buckworks is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member

<<By the way, once published on the Internet the knowledge is in the public domain anyway.>>

This is not an accurate statement. Copyright law does not somehow vanish just because something is published on the web instead of on paper.

Did you intend to say "public domain" or maybe "public knowledge"? The latter would make more sense.


4:46 am on Nov 19, 2002 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

By the way, once published on the Internet the knowledge is in the public domain anyway.

A common misconception and totally false. Publishing something anywhere does not make something public domain. Something becomes public domain only when (a) the copyright expires, or (b) the copyright owner explicitly makes it public domain.


Richard Lowe


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